Editors' Note 04/17/2008: The rating on this review has been modified from 8.0 to 7.7 due to changes in the competitive marketplace.
In the 50-something-inch screen size, plasma still holds a price advantage over LCD, although that advantage is shrinking every day. And as LCD TVs deliver improving picture quality and boast higher native resolutions, plasmas have to compete in other areas. One new picture-quality front is the screen itself--many newer plasmas, such as the Panasonic TH-50PX77U, incorporate antiglare coatings on their glass screens. The idea is to attenuate room reflections, an area where LCD has traditionally trounced plasma. The TH-50PX77U does a solid job of cutting down glare, and the majority of its other picture-quality characteristics, especially its deep black levels, outdo most offerings from the LCD camp. If you've been holding out on plasma because you have a bright room, sets such as the TH-50PX77U might help change your mind.
Editor's note: We also reviewed the 42-inch version of this set, the Panasonic TH-42PX77U, which scored slightly lower in the performance category. The main differences were in the 50-inch version's better black level performance and its slightly less noisy image.
The redesigned Panasonic TH-50PX77U is one of the better-looking plasmas we've reviewed in the last year. The glossy black frame around the screen--now standard on most flat-panel HDTVs--is augmented by side-mounted speakers, which appear as unobtrusive black strips, each about an inch wide. Along the bottom is set a swatch of charcoal gray that bows up ever so slightly in the middle and tapers on the sides. The only other accents on the front are the red power light and the silver logos. On the right side, invisible from the front, is a hatch that opens to reveal basic controls, an A/V input with composite and S-Video, and an SD card slot.
We really liked Panasonic's new remote. Its layout is basically the same as last year's model, but the somewhat larger buttons feel much better. Its keys--of which there are just the right number--are arranged quite logically, and although there's no backlighting, we appreciated the ease with which we were able to locate buttons by feel. The remote can control as many as three other devices. Panasonic's internal menu system is intuitive enough, although we disliked the ease with which you can inadvertently erase your picture settings.
With a native resolution of 1,366x768, the Panasonic TH-50PX77U matches the resolution of just about every available 50-inch plasma today. That's enough to display every detail of 720p HDTV, and although some competing displays have higher 1080p resolution, it doesn't make much of a difference at this screen size (see Performance below). All incoming signals, whether HDTV, DVD, or standard-def TV, are scaled to fit the pixels.
The range of picture controls bests that of previous "consumer" Panasonic plasmas, such as the 58-inch TH-58PX600U, coming closer to the control available in "professional" models such as the TH-50PH9UK. The most important improvement is the addition of true independent input memories. In other words, the settings for the set's Custom picture mode can be completely different for each input, allowing you to customize the picture for each of your sources. You can also choose from three other picture modes, which each can also be adjusted--but not independently for each input. There is a monkey wrench in the customization machine, however. Mistakenly deleting the settings you've worked to adjust is all too easy; a control labeled Normal, when selected, returns picture settings to their default positions. Writing down your settings somewhere once you've gotten them determined is a good idea.
A number of advanced adjustments complement the standard contrast, brightness, and other controls, including a trio of color-temperature presets, of which Warm is the most accurate. Of course, we would have appreciated the ability to further fine-tune the color temperature, as offered by Panasonic's own "professional" plasmas as well as by other competing units, such as the Vizio VP42HDTV.
Panasonic's color-management control is said to "enhance" the colors of green and blue, but we couldn't see any effect so we left it off. Controls for noise reduction and black level are also present, along with a selection for a standard or high-def color matrix (welcome with 480p sources, which use standard for DVDs and high-def for SD broadcasts). The selection of aspect ratio choices is quite good, with five available for high-def sources and four for standard-def.
In addition to the SD card slot we mentioned above, which allows you to display digital photos on the big screen if you insert an SD card, the Panasonic offers a fair selection of conveniences. There's an ATSC tuner for grabbing over-the-air broadcasts, although as expected, this model lacks CableCard. We also missed having the ability to view two programs at once via picture-in-picture.
Around back, the Panasonic TH-42PX77U offers pretty basic connectivity. There are two HDMI inputs, two component-video inputs, two A/V inputs with S-Video and composite video, an RF-style input for antenna or cable, a monitor A/V output with composite video, and an optical digital audio output for passing the surround soundtracks from over-the-air HD broadcasts. We were disappointed that Panasonic didn't deign to include a VGA-style input for PCs, as do many competing plasma makers.
We began our evaluation by adjusting the picture of the Panasonic TH-50PX77U for optimal quality in our darkened theater. In the Custom preset with the Warm color temperature selected, its grayscale came quite close to the 6,500K ideal for color temperature (see the Geek box below), although it was a bit red. After a service-menu level calibration it was significantly closer, although the grayscale wasn't as linear as we'd have liked, tending toward blue in the lower- and mid-bright areas. We were pleased that both the Custom and Cinema presets kept maximum light output to a reasonable level, close to the 35 footlamberts we prefer in a totally dark room, whereas most HDTVs' presets are blindingly bright. For a complete look at our final user-menu picture settings, click here or check out the Tips section above.